Tomás Villanueva, who advocated on behalf of farm workers for decades and helped launch a food bank and medical clinic in the Yakima Valley, died Friday at a Seattle nursing home.

He was 72.

Former Gov. Mike Lowry was among those Saturday who recalled Villanueva as an activist with charm, compassion and ability to transcend class and ethnicity.

It was his quiet passion that enabled him to convince so many legislators and leaders of the value of his cause, said Lowry.

“Tomás Villanueva was the leader who stood out,” Lowry said. “He had a way by which he made people like him, even those who started off disagreeing with him. He got the attention of the people who needed to be paying attention.”

“I consider him the premier Latino leader in Washington. He motivated people and gave workers a feeling of self-worth,” said Lupe Gamboa, a longtime friend and farm worker advocate. “It wasn’t just Tomás, but he was a catalyst for change for everything that happened.”

Villanueva is credited with leading the charge for a wide range of actions that improved the lives of thousands of farm workers, from a minimum wage to access to health care. A founder and former president of the United Farm Workers of Washington state, he helped start a food cooperative and the Farm Workers Family Health Center in Toppenish, which eventually became the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.

A look at the history of farm standards, such as requiring access to drinking water, sanitary toilets and hand-washing facilities, shows Villanueva had a hand in shaping them, said longtime friend Ricardo Garcia, who helped found Spanish-language public radio station KDNA in Granger.

Born in Monterrey in northern Mexico, he was one of 18 children, although six died in childhood. When he was 13, his family immigrated to the United States, where they followed crops from Texas to Ohio to the Pacific Northwest before settling in Toppenish in 1957.

In a 2009 interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic, Villanueva recalled that his mother was known in their neighborhood as “La Madrina,” or “The Godmother,” for her ability to persuade authorities to right injustices. He said he learned about nonviolent protest from her and, years later, from legendary farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez, who he met in California in the 1960s.

Gamboa said that as young men, he and Villanueva were inspired by Chavez. They brought his tactics for organizing back to Central Washington, where Villanueva helped organize a series of strikes against Yakima Valley growers in the late 1960s and 1970s.

“Those times were different, when people would call us agitators or communists or socialists,” Villanueva said in 2009. “I don’t know what they expected, if we were going to be trying to take over. All we wanted was equality.”

Gamboa said the strike taught Villanueva that wage changes won might only be temporary, so he took on new tactics. He was the farm workers’ first voice in Olympia, Gamboa said, and he worked to ensure that they were no longer exempt from labor laws that protected workers’ rights.

“Tomás always believed to make lasting change, you needed to change the laws,” Gamboa said. “He was completely fearless; he would go in and talk to legislators about his goals.”

Garcia said that Villanueva will be deeply missed, but he left behind an enduring legacy.

“Tomás was involved and committed 100 percent. I was very fortunate to have known him and to work alongside him,” Garcia said. “Tomás was always there, promoting always the dignity of the farm worker and the importance of having agricultural standards in the field to assure the health of farm worker men, women and sometimes children.”

Villanueva’s accomplishments were most recently honored in January when the Secretary of State’s Office hosted a ceremony in his honor in Seattle as part of a state exhibit on Washington’s most influential personalities and industries.

In 1970, Villanueva helped found the Farm Workers Family Health Center in Toppenish. It eventually became the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, and today provides medical, dental and social services in several Pacific Northwest communities and operates clinics in 13 cities and towns in Oregon and Washington.

Villanueva’s vision that everyone should have access to health care lives on at the Yakima Valley Farm Worker’s Clinic, said CEO Carlos Olivares.

“It is clear that without Tomás’ work, none of this would have happened,” Olivares said. “That sense of mission to (serve the underserved) has never left our organization.”

Olivares remembers meeting Villanueva 38 years ago when he started work at the clinic.

“How can this quiet gentleman have such a vision and commitment to what he’s doing?” Olivares recalls thinking. “His passion came through so vividly it really stuck in my mind. It was a very telling moment for me about where I was coming to work.”

Villanueva’s last high-profile campaign was in 2006, when he ran for state Senate and lost by more than 7,000 votes to incumbent 15th District Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

Villanueva once said he put everything on the line because he knew his people had nothing to lose.

“How can we risk what we don’t have?” he said in a 2004 interview with University of Washington historians documenting the state’s farm worker rights movement.

Gamboa believes Villanueva did what he set out to do.

“He was very mission driven. He believed that he had a role to play, and I think he thought he accomplished that,” Gamboa said. “His was a life well spent.”

The Villanueva family plans to hold a memorial service in the Yakima Valley in a few weeks.

• Material from Herald-Republic archives was included in this report.

• Kate Prengaman can be reached at 509-577-7674 or Follow her on Twitter at